The Day That Changed My Life: Pippa O’Connor on launching her transformative business and being her own boss
In the last of our Independent.ie special series, Pippa O’Connor speaks about her biggest life-changing moment: launching her business
Pippa O’Connor has become something of an urban legend.
In an industry where celebrities are often teasing their "next project" which rarely materialises, this model turned businesswoman delivers time and time again and at 33, Pippa's next chapter is only just beginning. In the early days of her career, most knew her as a model, synonymous with the Celtic Tiger-era with the infamous holding-props-on-Grafton-Street photocall set-up; these days, her modelling career is now buried at the bottom of her CV.
Pippa never fit into the same box as some of her colleagues, in part because she was never part of the out-all-night party scene and largely because she is so unfailingly nice - the secret behind that je ne sais quoi that makes her virtually untouchable and largely immune to public criticism.
Not to mention she has a sturdy support network around her, in the form of her husband and business partner Brian Ormond, who is by her side every step of the journey – which, most recently, saw them launch their business to new and rather intimidating heights with the release of her POCO denim range.
So what was it about that moment?
"It changed everything business-wise, it changed our whole lives. That day we had to go from turning what had always been an idea into a massive brand and suddenly employing 40 people," she tells Independent.ie Style.
Team Pippa employs eight members of staff full-time, including her sister Susanna and Niamh Doherty, a former intern who has been by her side since the beginning. Although they were both well-known figures on the Dublin social scene for many years, Pippa settled down relatively young and she was married with her first child by 30. And it was during that time that the wheels starting turning about what to do next.
“It wasn’t my chosen career, I fell into modelling,” she explains. “I loved the people I met through it, I met so many great girls and guys and lovely clients and people I still work with today on different levels. I loved the social aspect of it, but the job itself wasn’t so fulfilling. It was 10 years of doing different things all the time and I was young so I had great craic, but it reached a point where I thought, ‘What do I actually want to do?’
“When I was pregnant with Ollie, I wasn’t really working – there’s only so much work a pregnant model can do in Ireland and I got cold feet about returning to work. What was going to happen after I have a child? I can’t go straight back to modelling and not being able to afford to have my child minded; it wouldn’t be worth the money if I was thinking about all of those things.
“I started posting on Instagram regularly and started a blog, which I knew nothing about setting up. I started off this basic website template, I got a friend to help me set it up for free and I was just using pictures on my phone ans it grew naturally from there. I never thought I’d be getting advertising six months later which would fund my fashion brand, I’d love to say that was the plan…but it wasn’t."
Before you knew it, Pippa was cultivating an army of fans all her own and it wasn't column inches boosting her career, it was herself.
Two years after launching her blog, she launched an eyeshadow palette, then came the best-selling book and eventually the launch of POCO in 2016, which is what brought her growing empire to another level.
“When I set this up in 2013, I didn’t know exactly what my goal was – I knew it would be something along those lines in fashion, I didn’t know what exactly – I didn’t know how to go about it. You can’t reinvent the wheel, if you have an idea, someone else is probably already doing it, so it was a case of thinking what it is my own unique selling point,” she explains.
Like all small business owners know, competition is fierce and independent retailers are fighting for their lives, but a healthy dose of optimism paired with a big gulp of reality after launch only fuelled her ambition.
"After the launch of POCO, we woke up to 1,000 orders and we had a little set-up at the back of the office where there was two people packing, a courier company was set up, so was a customer service team and I thought that was sufficient in keeping us going; after a couple of days, we realised it wasn't and everyone was recruited to help," she says.
"It was six to eight weeks of packing into the middle of the night…it got a little mad and I couldn’t sustain it as it was. Looking back now, it was the only way we could have begun because we knew the system inside out.”
It’s clear she takes a great sense of pride in being an employer and during our conversation, she never describes anyone as working for her, only “with” her, always a tell-tale sign of a fair boss. But with influence and power comes also responsibility and that meant hiring some of her closest friends and family and asking them to take the leap with her.
“At the beginning, it was very scary because one was my sister and another was my friend - these are mothers with families and I feel very responsible – I don’t want to let anyone down, it’s a big responsibility being an employer,” she explains. “For me, it has always felt like a shared responsibility with my husband, so I never feel as if it’s totally on my shoulders, he helps lighten the load. You always need someone whether it’s a mentor or a business partner...you need someone.
"In business with something like we are, you don’t switch off at 5 o’clock and I don’t start at 8am, so in some ways, I feel like I’m constantly working, which definitely has its pros and cons.”
So, what are they?
“The cons are: nothing is easy and you get let down all the time, whether it’s missing deadlines, delays in big order and there’s constantly things with manufacturers. It’s a constant headache, as it can be with any business. If you want to do something to a certain standard, it’s not going to be easy.
“The pro would be being my own boss. Today is Friday and I said to myself that I would be doing a bit of work from home this morning and I don’t have to ring anyone and ask them for permission. I get to make my own decisions, which is equally scary when it comes to certain things – there are big financial risks.”
Her biggest source of pride and joy, however, are her sons Ollie (four) and Louis (one).
“To me, it’s an important thing for them to see, it’s good for the two boys, it’s good that they see their mum and dad are really busy in the working environment – whether it be in or out of the home. I always remember my mum working and my dad and I think it’s a good thing for children to see.”